Joe Sestak Profile: Run, Joe, Run

He was forced out of a Navy post. A dozen of his Congressional staffers have quit. And now, Newtown Square’s Joe Sestak is defying Barack Obama and Ed Rendell in taking on Arlen Specter in the country’s most important Senate race. But is he exactly the sort of scorched-earth guy we need in Washington?

THE SESTAK PEOPLE ARE TOUCHY about the lone-wolf thing. "Loner?" Sestak knits his hands. "I’m very interested in results. And, you know, we had the most pieces of legislation passed for any freshman. You know that, right?" (His main accomplishments were an autism-care bill and an elder-abuse bill.) "I think we get along pretty well for what we do substantively."

In other words: Arlen Specter’s right. Relationships do matter. They probably matter more than we like to think. And core beliefs matter less. How do you know what’s in a politician’s heart? You don’t. All you can do is look at the votes, the record.

And what does Sestak’s record say? He supported the continued funding of the Iraq war. He opposed, with passion and eloquence, the Iraq surge, on the grounds that it "doubles down on a bad military bet." He voted against his party on a few fiscal issues, such as limits on executive pay. He was a faithful progressive on social issues. He voted for a 2008 national-security bill that gave immunity to telecom companies that had illegally wiretapped Americans; Sestak didn’t like the provision, but he told his brother he voted for the bill because it was the best deal on the table. Sestak’s first policy instinct isn’t to lob bombs; his instinct on many issues tends to be Specter-like, which is to analyze the angles and … cut a deal.

He only seems like a bomb-thrower because of the way he talks about his ambitions. In early October, Sestak was chatting with a woman, 40ish and curly-haired, about health care. The woman was applying makeup to his face at the time, in the green room of the local Fox News uplink studio, on 17th Street, prior to Sestak going on the air. She was telling Sestak a horror story about fighting her insurance company. Sestak frowned. "Insurance companies are actually rationing care," he said. "People think the government is doing it, but they’re doing it." Then he brightened, brandished his mug of green-room coffee like a torch: "We need titans over there in the Senate to get [reform] through! And let the chips fall where they may!"

This is Joe Sestak in microcosm: a sharp, humane observation that takes a deep and bitter truth (our health-care system discriminates based on income) and reframes it in a sensible language that even Fox News viewers would have trouble disputing, followed by an incongruous leap into superhero land. Sestak solves an algebra equation and applies to be Batman.

Titan rhetoric aside, Sestak’s history doesn’t suggest a clean break from the Specter era. It suggests a continuation, an extension. Over the years, Specter managed to spin his cunning as an operator into a positive brand attribute. Now that that’s become a caricature, an absurdity, Sestak can step in and infuse the appealing parts of the brand — respected broker, bipartisan deal-maker, wise hand — with the force of his own biography, his energy, and, yes, his principles. Sestak can continue to be a cautious progressive while filling the air with fireworks.